From an initial standpoint of relative neutrality, I have come to the conclusion that referendums – at least as practised in the UK – are a bad thing.
In case you think this is because of my views on Brexit, when I was on the losing side, you’d be wrong. I have voted in two other referendums and was on the winning side both times – the original EEC referendum in 1975 (yes, I’m that mature) and of course in the 2014 Scottish referendum.
It seems to me that there are at least three problems with UK-style referendums.
First, although the few referendums we have had either across the UK or in its constituent parts have been on what might be called existential issues – big and important questions – they are held entirely at the whim of the prime minister and government of the day. No politician willingly undertakes an exercise that they expect to lose. Our UK referendums are only legislated for if the government of the day believes it will win the vote, and in some cases if the prime minister wishes to lance a political boil in their own party. Harold Wilson did this successfully in 1975, David Cameron unsuccessfully this year.
Good old British pragmatism has its merits but I think this is an example of where it should be tempered by some rule set in legislation. Such a rule would be a lot easier to define if, like Ireland, we had a written constitution and any proposed change to it had to be approved in a referendum. But failing that it should not be beyond the wit of parliament and the best legal brains to come up with a set of criteria to be met before a referendum could be called.
Second, the bar to trigger change in our referendums – a straight majority of those voting – is too low. In the Scottish referendum 55% of voters on a turnout of 85% voted No, so change was irrelevant. In the EU referendum 52% on a turnout of 72% voted Leave. In Scotland the winning side represented 46.7% of the entire electorate. In the EU vote, it represented only 37.5% of the electorate.
These referendums are in effect a one-way street. The vote is always between the status quo and significant change that could not be undone, at least not without huge difficulty. Although the ballot paper has a choice, in essence people are being asked if they want change: the only answers are yes or no. Under our present system, if you can call it that, the issue concerned is always a major one. I think it not unreasonable that half of the adult population (at least the part that can be bothered to register to vote) should vote for that sort of change for it to happen.
That rule would of course have meant no change in both the recent referendums. Ironically, in the case of Scotland it would mean as a unionist I would have to concede separation if Nicola Sturgeon’s talked-of rule of thumb for holding indyref2 – a consistent run of 60% for Yes in opinion polls – were achieved on a turnout of 85% (because 60% of that turnout would represent 51% of the electorate). That would be a bitter pill for me to swallow but if there were to be another referendum it seems to me a fair test of what the population as a whole would want.
There is, you might remind me. a different issue with a second independence referendum – the fact that both UK and Scottish governments signed up to the Edinburgh Agreement for a referendum that would deliver a ‘decisive’ vote (it did) and both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon spoke repeatedly of it being a once in a generation or even lifetime opportunity.
That leads to the third condition I would require, that for a change which fails to gain the approval of 50% of the electorate, I would set a minimum time before the same question could be put to the test in a further referendum. What that time should be would require the wisdom of Solomon but at least five years, the life of a parliament, might have some merit.
A final thought – at present referendums are only ‘advisory’ in the sense that parliament is not required to implement any change voted for. Perhaps, subject to the sorts of suggestions I make here, their implementation should be mandatory, although no government has yet gone against the result of a referendum. Yet.
On balance, I think I far prefer a representative democracy in which our elected politicians take decisions on our behalf and pay the price at the ballot box if we don’t like what they do. But if we are to have referendums, these sorts of changes taken together (you may well have better ones) might reconcile me to their place in our national life. Without them I am afraid I would conclude in any exam question that referendums are indeed a bad thing.